Prosser/s Gabriel, Slave uprising, Slavery, Richmond, Virginia, Southern history
For nearly three decades, historians and editors labored, unsuccessfully, to publish the documents pertaining to the Richmond-area slave conspiracy of 1800. In the 1980s, the late Armstead Robinson began the task. After Robinson’s death, the Library of Virginia took it up, but the proposed volume fell victim to budget cuts. At long last, the job has been admirably completed by Philip J. Schwarz, author of Twice Condemned: [End Page 136] Slaves and the Criminal Law of Virginia and other essential books on slavery in the early republic.1
Most of the documents included here are the handwritten records of the oyer and terminer court—a Virginia tribunal reserved for slave crime—for the four counties at the center of the plot. Schwarz supplements the trial documents with letters, newspaper accounts, and military and financial records, all sensibly arranged in strict chronological order, so that the story unfolds for the reader as it did for those living through these events. Compared to the wealth of documents generated by later conspiracies, and especially those organized by Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, the public documents retained by Virginia in 1800 are often maddeningly brief. The court clerks adopted a basic template, so that each trial starts with the date, the name of the accused and his owner, a list of co-conspirators, the defense attorney, the justices who heard the case, and typically but not always, witnesses. In a handful of cases, those blacks who resolved to save their lives by turning state’s evidence provided lengthy affidavits and confessions. In other cases, the clerks omitted everything but the names of the witnesses. When Laddis, the slave of John Williamson, was brought before the bar, the clerk recorded only that the witnesses included “Prosser’s Ben [and] Mrs. Price’s John” (68). His pen captured none of their words. As a result of this documentary scarcity, historians trying to piece together a complicated puzzle have been forced to read creatively between the lines. Schwarz, interestingly, declined to craft an introductory essay and instead substituted a short historiographical discussion and a detailed chronology of events.
What comes through clearly, however, was just how often the enslaved artisans discussed their right to keep their earnings and acquire property. Eugene Genovese once remarked that post-Revolutionary slave revolts “must be understood primarily as part of the most radical wing of the struggle for a democracy that had not yet lost its bourgeois moorings,” and the documents collected here bear that theory out.2 Gabriel’s brother [End Page 137] Solomon, also a blacksmith, was appointed “Treasurer” of the conspirators (35), and Solomon himself admitted that Gabriel hoped to “conquer the white people & possess ourselves of their property” (37). A journalist for the Virginia Argus agreed that the rebels planned to “possess themselves of their masters’ property” (50), and Ben testified that their plan was to march on Richmond, “take the treasury, and divide the money amongst [the] Soldiers” (151). Gabriel often disbursed small amounts of cash so that recruiters might travel about the region, but many of the conspirators, such as Billy, also intended to take possession of their murdered masters’ horses (44). As James Sidbury astutely observed in Ploughshares into Swords, horses were emblems of status in both Virginia and West Africa, and their appropriation also fit nicely with Gabriel’s plans for a black cavalry.3
Like most modern documentary scholars, Schwarz edits the documents with a light touch, and the admonitory [sic] makes but a rare appearance. Regarding annotations, however, Schwarz’s touch is perhaps too light. Most recent presidential papers include lengthy footnotes on the writers of letters and those mentioned within them. Governor James Monroe, admittedly, requires little introduction to likely readers of this volume, but that is hardly true for the more obscure justices who sat on the courts, or for the white southerners who owned the hanged men. Nor does Schwarz’s limited annotation link...